The University Record, May 23, 1994

Handling of grievances fuels heated Senate Assembly debate

By Mary Jo Frank

Faculty members grappled with charges of administrative interference in grievance procedures, of racism and with power struggles among the faculty and between the faculty and the administration at last Monday’s Senate Assembly meeting.

The May meeting, normally one of the quietest of the year, drew a crowd of more than 80 spectators, who glimpsed parts of academic life rarely discussed in public.

Referring to the University’s tradition of handling promotion and tenure procedures and grievances with discretion to avoid embarrassment of all parties involved, Provost Gilbert R. Whitaker Jr. said, “As complexities have grown or become more evident, many cracks have developed in the previously relatively confidential nature of these processes.” These come from leaks and from the less than fully confidential nature of the process when many people are involved as references and referees, he noted.

Before the meeting, Whitaker sent each Senate Assembly member a 45-page packet of correspondence, reports and copies of articles chronicling the controversy surrounding a formal grievance filed by Peggie J. Hollingsworth, assistant research scientist in pharmacology, and an informal grievance by Thomas D. Landefeld, associate professor of pharmacology.

Whitaker explained that when two members of a promotion review committee heard that they may have been accused of making their recommendations based on racially discriminatory motivations, they used the Freedom of Information Act to discover whether such charges had been made.

They subsequently contacted the provost, expressing their concerns about being the subjects of such accusations and advised him of their concerns about the effect of such charges on the willingness of the faculty to serve on review committees.

“I felt that my only possible action and one which I believe was appropriate was to assert I knew of no evidence of racism and to call on those who made such charges to prove or withdraw them,” Whitaker explained.

In a Feb. 11 letter to Pharmacology Interim Chair Raymond E. Counsell, Whitaker said: “This letter is written to you on behalf of William B. Pratt, who has been accused of racism by a faculty member in the Department of Pharmacology.

“I would like you to know that I am not aware of any evidence that would suggest that Dr. Pratt is a racist. Moreover, accusing someone of racism is a very serious charge, and I believe that anyone making such a charge should either document the charge or withdraw it.

“Please share this letter with your colleagues in the department at an appropriate time.”

Subsequently the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) asked the provost to publicly retract that portion of his letter relating directly to Pratt and apologize in writing to Hollingsworth and Landefeld “for his potential or actual interference.”

SACUA also said the provost should agree, in writing, to remove himself from adjudicating any appeals resulting from matters involving the grievances filed by Hollingsworth and Landefeld, adding that “the most suitable substitute for resolving any such appeals would be a specifically constituted faculty appeal board appointed by SACUA.”

Refusing to apologize, Whitaker countered by asking in a May 10 letter to Senate Assembly members that the Assembly withdraw SACUA’s request for an apology.

In his speech, Whitaker said he was surprised when SACUA asked him to apologize to those making the charges, as yet unproved. “What would one apologize for?” he asked.

Both Hollingsworth and Landefeld briefly addressed the Assembly. Hollingsworth, former Assembly chair, accused Whitaker of carefully selecting and editing documents compiled in the Assembly packet and charged that he never considered the impact on her career when he wrote the letter on Pratt’s behalf. Hollingsworth had filed a grievance alleging the Department of Pharmacology’s history of racial and gender bias had cost her a promotion.

Landefeld, who had criticized a colleague for having “openly made overt racist remarks,” said Whitaker has ignored the rights of Hollingsworth and himself, and he charged that University administrators downplay campus racism.

The only vote Assembly took Monday was to table a motion reaffirming the division of powers and duties among the University Senate, the Senate Assembly and SACUA.

The University Senate includes the professorial staff, executive officers, deans of the schools and colleges and certain members of the research and library staff. The Senate Assembly is the legislative arm of the Senate, consisting of 72 elected representatives from the schools and colleges. The nine members of SACUA are elected to advise and consult with the president on matters of University policy and serve as an instrument for effecting the actions of the Senate and the Assembly.

The motion to reaffirm the division of powers was introduced and supported by several Assembly members who expressed concern about recent SACUA actions, including a decision to investigate the January suspension of the Department of Communication’s bylaws by LS&A Dean Edie N. Goldenberg.

Defending SACUA’s decision to look into problems within the Department of Communication, SACUA member George Brewer said SACUA had been asked by faculty members to do so. It has been traditional for SACUA committees to look into issues and report their findings to the Assembly, Brewer noted.

The committee report system is fine in theory, according to James K. Coward, professor of medicinal chemistry, but, he added, “the reality is not so fine,” referring to the recent faculty evaluation of deans conducted in some schools and colleges against the expressed wishes of Assembly representatives from those units.

Kim Scheppele, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and associate professor of political science and public policy, said that if SACUA, as the representative of Senate Assembly, is going to undertake investigations or other actions in the name of Senate Assembly, SACUA needs to do it with the Assembly’s consent.

At the conclusion of his speech, Whitaker told Senate Assembly members: “You and I both need to know when SACUA speaks as a body representing the Assembly and when it speaks only for those individuals who are members of SACUA. This point has become a crucial one in the life of the University.”

Brewer recommended that the Senate Assembly not take action on Whitaker’s request for the Assembly to withdraw SACUA’s request for an apology. SACUA views the problem as one with the grievance process, not a racism issue, Brewer said.

The University’s grievance process

has serious flaws, Brewer said. A SACUA subcommittee has been looking at grievance procedures for six months. The current controversy might be an opening wedge to find a remedy, Brewer predicted.

Among those who were critical of Whitaker’s handling of the grievances in pharmacology was Wilfred Kaplan. Speaking on behalf of the executive committee of the U-M Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, Kaplan said: “The action of the provost in writing to Prof. Counsell about Prof. Pratt’s complaint was improper and raised serious questions about the provost’s role in pending grievance hearings. Although we agree that accusing someone of racism is a serious charge, his statement that he was not aware of any evidence that would suggest that Dr. Pratt is a racist necessarily involves the provost in several ongoing grievance processes.”

Kaplan said other actions of the University administration, especially the release of confidential material to Pratt and distribution of the packet of information to Senate Assembly “even more seriously interfere with the grievance process and display a bias toward or against certain individuals involved in grievances.”

Kaplan concluded: “Therefore, we ask that the administration take steps to ensure that all such actions showing bias and interfering with the grievance process cease at once.”

Whitaker denied that he had prejudiced the grievance process, noting that the vice president for research would be involved in any appeal. He also said the packet sent to Senate Assembly members contained materials that had already been widely distributed.

Priscilla S. Rogers, associate professor of business communication, was among the faculty members who spoke in support of Whitaker. She noted that as dean of the School of Business Administration, Whitaker created a climate welcoming of all people, including underrepresented minorities and women. The intent of Whitaker’s letter should be applauded because it offers security for all faculty, Rogers said, and does not interfere with grievance procedures.